RFU threat hung over rugby scene

 

THE background to the dispute that arose between England and the three other home countries over the television rights and revenue had its roots in negotiations that took place three years ago.

At that time when the deal with the BBC was agreed England sought a larger share of the money from the championship than the other three unions - France have their own agreement with French, television.

That was resolved when England got around £6 million more than the other countries from Sky television for the right to the live transmission of Courage League matches. Sky also got the right to delayed transmission of the five nations matches on Saturday evenings.

But the threat of England going it alone hung over the scene, as some in the English Rugby Union (BFU) saw a separate deal as a means of getting more money.

That was even added impetus with the advent of professionalism and when the game went professional at club level in England this season, the clubs in an effort to meet huge wage bills and the signings of overseas players put pressure on the RFU for a much greater return from television rights.

While the agreement for the televising of the championship that was in place with the BBC does no expire until the end of next season, in accordance with established procedure, the broadcasting rights are put out to tender a year in advance.

APRIL: There was evidence that the RFU was in negotiation with Sky television for a unilateral deal and that was given substance at a meeting of the Five Nations Committee in Dublin on April 14th.

Following that meeting a statement was issued on April 16th by the other unions that the RFU had "contrary to traditional and long standing procedure" informed the meeting that it was negotiating its own independent deals for the television rights.

The other nations stated that such an action was "wholly unacceptable" and warned of the consequences, including the severing of competition at all levels with England if the RFU negotiated a separate deal.

Although the French Federation was not directly involved in the television agreement, the FFR gave the other home unions full support. England's representative on the Five Nations TV sub-committee, John Jeavons Fellowes, withdrew from any further negotiation the renewal of the TV rights.

May: The other nations stated that, in accordance with established practice, that they were putting the television rights out to tender to all interested parties. At a meeting of the Five Nations Committee in Dublin, at which England was not represented, written unsolicited offers to Wales, Ireland and Scotland were submitted by Sky with the letters being delivered by courier. These were rejected out of hand. These offers were £40 million to Wales and £28 million to Ireland and Scotland for a five year agreement.

June: The RFU persisted in going it alone and their efforts to get the other unions to accept Sky's offers were vigorously rejected. Meanwhile, statements issued by officials of the RFU suggested that the other countries were not empowered to eject England from the championship and that such an action might be contested in court. But it did not break the resolve of the other nations.

July: At a meeting in Paris on July 15th, Ireland, France, Scotland and Wales signed a Protocol Agreement outlining plans for a four nations competition to be played annually on a home and away basis. That meeting confirmed England's expulsion from the championship unless they changed their stance. England's response was to say that if necessary they would put in place matches with Southern Hemisphere countries.

August:Representatives from Ireland, France, Scotland and Wales met in London on August 5th. Following that meeting the RFU met the other unions in Bristol but the problems were not resolved and England's expulsion remained in place. Another offer was made by England and, after the other countries asked for clarification of certain points, England's response was not deemed satisfactory.

The RFU president, John Richardson, sent a letter to the English clubs and divisions asking for their support in what he termed "a call to arms and the strains being imposed on the RFU by the other home unions." It was a letter that incensed the other unions.

The representatives on the TV sub-committee of Wales (Vernon Pugh), Scotland (Fred McLeod) and Ireland (Syd Millar) met in London on August 27th and following that meeting England were given "one last chance " to retrieve the situation and it was confirmed that all arrangements were in place for the new four nations championship.

A meeting was scheduled for Dublin next Sunday to confirm England's expulsion unless they came up with an offer deemed satisfactory to the other nations. A meeting of International Board Tours and Tournaments sub-committee was scheduled for Cardiff on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Then came the initiative that saved the championship when a meeting took place in Bristol between representatives of the Four Home Unions and the deal that saved the Five Nations Championship was brokered. The meeting in Dublin next Sunday will confirm the continuation of the championship.